40 years after Stonewall: black gays still targeted

In the 1960's New York mayor Robert Wagner launched a campaign to "clean up the city" to help...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

A man blows kisses during NY’s annual Gay Pride Parade (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

In the 1960’s New York mayor Robert Wagner launched a campaign to “clean up the city” to help its image as a family-friendly place for the 1964 World’s Fair. That clean-up meant constant police raids and closing of LGBT establishments, and arresting people for dressing in clothes considered for the “opposite gender.”

In the wee hours of the morning of June 28th 1969, police officers raided the Stonewall Inn, a bar in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. They attempted to make several arrests, but people had simply had enough. Bar patrons and those outside who were too young or too poor to get in fought the police, trying to save people who were being arrested, and destroying police cars.

Recently released arrest records prove what many historians and veterans of that night have been saying for years—that lesbians, transgender people, and people of color of all persuasions were at Stonewall that night.

Before I moved to New York City at 24 years old a decade ago, I always believed that the Stonewall Riots, whose 40th anniversary was commemorated on June 28th, happened because a bunch of testy queens still grieving over the death of Judy Garland, took out their frustrations on unsuspecting police for 3 days. Not only is this persistent rumor false, but it obscures the race, class and gender dynamics of the riots. It also demeans the conditions that created the riot. Unfortunately those conditions still largely persist in the lives of poor and working class LGBT blacks and Latinos in New York City today.

The lessons of Stonewall, which birthed the modern gay rights movement, are still with us. Though the media and some conservative gay organizations are claiming that the fight for marriage equality is the natural progression of the movement 40 years on, the reality is that the largely poor and working class Black and Latino LGBT community who still socialize (and sometimes live on the streets) of the West Village, are subject to the same kinds of police abuse and brutality people at the Stonewall Inn were in 1969.

As part of New York’s “Quality of Life” campaign launched under former mayor Rudy Giuliani, and still ongoing under Mayor Bloomberg, 100 police officers were added to the local precinct in early 2002. Currently there are four police entities that police a 10-block radius of the West Village where black and brown LGBT folks, especially youth, hang out. If you walk a few blocks over to the bars and clubs that cater to a largely white NYU college crowd, the numbers of police dwindle to a handful.

Over the last decade, nearly half a dozen bars that once catered to black and Latino LGBT folks have closed, replaced by expensive restaurants and boutiques. The social service agencies that served the community there have been all relocated elsewhere due to rent costs and an inhospitable upper middle class white gentry.

Black and Latino LGBT youth report being constantly targeted and harassed by police, and accused of drug dealing and sex work. And at least one-third of all homeless youth are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, most of whom are Black or Latino. Due to only a few dozen beds in shelters dedicated to LGBT homeless people, many prefer sleep on the streets of the West Village rather that be subjected to violence in the shelter system.

Ignoring the seriousness of police violence and “queer removal” policies that led to the Stonewall riots by reducing it to a bunch of bratty white queens leads us to false conclusions about the nature of the riot, and what its real legacy is today. The current tensions and frustrations that existed then are still very real.

The Stonewall Inn still exists, and so do the throngs of Black and Latino LGBT folks who find themselves under the similar policing and policies that led to the uprising that warm summer night 40 years ago.